04/18/2012 4:10PM

Emerald Downs: Cat On Base, Belvoir off to fast start


AUBURN, Wash. – With the sun peeking out and Mount Rainier standing watch above the clubhouse turn, Cat On Base equaled the track record for 5 1/2 furlongs last Saturday at Emerald Downs. The 5-year-old Washington-bred gelding ran the distance in 1:01.37 to tie a mark established by two other horses, and he narrowly missed the North American dirt record of 1:01.03 set by Rule by Force at Yavapai Downs in 2009.

The victory, in a $15,000 claimer for older horses, was the fourth of Cat On Base’s career and easily the most impressive. While the effort was rewarded with a Beyer Speed Figure of just 89 – a substantial discount because the racing surface was super fast – it was 10 points faster than Cat On Base’s previous best.

The victory was welcome relief for trainer Howard Belvoir and a small village of owners that includes Belvoir, his partner, Vicki Potter, and a group of teachers and their friends recruited by Potter under the Rising Star Stable moniker.

An average performance by Cat On Base during his 19-race career has been a top-three finish and a check for about $3,000. For a trainer with a seemingly endless string of horses, and the monumental overhead that goes with it, Cat On Base has been a prized possession for Belvoir and Potter. He pays the bills.

The horse has come a long way since Belvoir picked the then-unnamed colt out of a winter consignment sale before his 2-year-old year. The purchase price was $7,000. After Belvoir’s grandson, Ace, gave the horse his name (“It’s probably from a cartoon or something,” Belvoir said), the trainer enlisted jockey Jennifer Whitaker to work with him in the mornings. Over the course of the past three years, Cat On Base has gone from unruly to willing in his training routine.

“Jennifer did a good job with him. He used to be a head case sometimes, but she’s been real good at getting him to lower his head and train the way he’s supposed to,” Belvoir said. “He used to want to throw his head up over his back and take off real fast. Now he’s under control.”

On March 19, Cat On Base served notice when he worked four furlongs in 46.20 seconds, the fastest move of the day. Belvoir was confident he’d fire a big shot in his first start following a seven-month layoff.

“He’s been training real good, and the track favored the speed a little bit,” Belvoir said. “I didn’t think he’d go that fast, but he runs pretty good fresh and tends to get a little sore later. I knew he’d run good.”

Cat On Base benefitted from the scratch of Howmuchisit, a shipper from Santa Anita who was expected to set a breakneck pace. With Howmuchisit out of the way, Cat On Base and Whitaker enjoyed easy access to the lead. They skipped through fractions 21.60, 43.97 and 55.30 seconds en route to the 1:01.37 clocking.

Converted to fifths of a second, the official time of 1:01 1/5 equaled the track record set by Willie the Cat in 2004 and equaled by The Great Face in 2007. Emerald converted its timing system from fifths to hundredths of seconds in 2011.

The Emerald racing surface had been lightning fast in the couple of weeks before Cat On Base’s record run. But according to Belvoir, that doesn’t mean track superintendent Wayne Damron should do anything to slow it.

“The track has been great,” Belvoir said. “I just hope they don’t change it. When you see fast times across the board, there’s some bounce to the track. When some horses are running fast, and some slow, it’s got no bounce. The surface favors speed, but what track doesn’t anymore.”

Belvoir won with five of his 22 starters during the three-day opening weekend. That’s puts him on the improbable pace to win 135 races while sending out 594 starters during the 81-day stand. The sample size is small, of course, but around the Emerald Downs backside, it’s taken for granted that Belvoir will lead in number of starters. He saddled 315 horses during an 82-day meeting in 2011, 101 more than any other trainer.

Belvoir said he has 60 horses housed at Emerald Downs, with another handful at a training center. He remains mindful of the dwindling horse population and the need to fill races. That explains why he was so busy last weekend, running a bunch of sharp horses, but also a few who weren’t ready for their best but were needed to make a race go.

“This industry is in serious trouble, and if we want to do it, you have to make some concessions,” Belvoir said. “I’ve always told my kids, if you take something out of the business, you better put something back in. That’s how I run things.”

“I don’t like to sit in the barn, anyway,” he said. “I don’t think owners do, either, and I own most of mine.”